There is a war going on over truth in drug marketing. There have been many victims of drugs that made it to market with deadly and damaging side effects. Increasingly, drug companies have sought to expand their markets by targeting children and young people.
Many young people have died and many more have been damaged by the use of drugs with negative side effects that far outweigh their benefits. They are the nameless, unrecognised victims of the surge in drug use. But they are not the only victims. We, their parents, are collateral damage in the war.
Losing a child, no matter what his age, is the worst thing that can happen to any parent. If one loses a child to cancer, the community rallies round in support and sympathy. If a child is kidnapped, the community unites in outrage against the perpetrator and demands that law enforcement take action. Losing a child to psychoactive drugs is very different. Nobody even admits what happened, and any parent who manages, against the odds, to figure out the truth will never get it acknowledged. That failure to acknowledge does damage of its own.
Confronted by an angry parent who has just learned that the drug her deceased child was taking had serious risks, doctors will insist that the drug was safe and that the decision to prescribe it was reasonable. Even if they acknowledge that the drugs can theoretically cause problems, they insist that in the case in question the risks were necessary and justified. The physician regulatory bodies go even farther. They will never admit that psychoactive drugs actually cause problems. They insist that all problems are the result of mental illness, and any parent who insists that her son or daughter was harmed by drugs will be confronted by a blatant “blame the victim” strategy.
In the good old days, rape victims were routinely treated as the authors of their own misfortune. It was a defense counsel strategy to criticize a complainant’s character, partner choices and manner of dress, as if these things were legitimate excuses for sexual assault. The underlying assumption was that some women are more deserving of protection from violence than others. This terrible unfairness was corrected years ago. However, the same phenomenon is alive and well in the psychiatric system.
A sensitive young person who experiences an episode of psychosis, or a bout of angst, or complains of sadness and inability to concentrate will often be given drugs that create new, worse problems. Neuroleptics cause weight gain, diminished cognitive functioning and a host of other unpleasant side effects. They also cause psychosis on withdrawal. SSRI antidepressants diminish empathy, and in some cases they cause craving for alcohol, depression and violent thoughts of harm to self or others. ADHD drugs taken for a long time can cause paranoia, psychosis, loss of energy and aggressive reactions. No doctor will ever admit that these are a factor in any individual case.
Young people who experience drug-related changes to their health or personality are never victims in the eyes of the medical establishment. They are flawed humans with disorders. It is never the drugs they were taking that caused their problems; it is always their disorders. The benefit of the doubt always goes to the doctors and their drugs. This is true no matter how obvious the connection between drugs and problems.
The system gets away with this for several reasons. First, most parents never learn the truth. When one of our teenagers experiences difficulties, starts a drug and then cycles down into alcohol abuse and bad behaviour, nobody suspects the drugs. When that same teenager commits suicide a few years later as a young adult, the medical system offers sympathy and its own interpretation of events, which never includes drugs as the root cause of the downward cycle. The last thing that parents would want to acknowledge is that we contributed to the death of our beloved offspring by encouraging them to take a drug that did terrible harm. The odds of us finding out the truth are so slight anyway that most of us never get to the point of facing this dilemma. We certainly never learn about it from our children’s doctors.
The rare parent who happens to meet a doctor who is candid about drug impacts, or who reads a book written by one of them, will be stonewalled by the system. In medical practice, majority rules, and anything that most doctors do is considered OK. So, if most psychiatrists use dangerous drugs to “treat” teenage sadness or childhood inattention, they are safe from blame for the many deaths that occur as a result.
Parents can point to drug monographs that clearly spell out the dangers. We can cite the books written by those few doctors who tell it like it is. We can create graphs clearly illustrating a direct correlation between prescription changes and deterioration in their child. It won’t make any difference. The system is not listening and does not want to know.
The toll that this denial takes on parents is immense. Most of us grew up knowing that doctors are the good guys; they help, they heal, and they are the smartest and the most altruistic among us. The idea that some doctors would participate in mass denial is shocking beyond belief.
Physician regulatory bodies have evolved elaborate systems to protect their members from the few parents who figure out what really happened. They never discipline doctors who kill young people with drugs, and thus the physicians’ names and their actions are kept out of sight. Privacy legislation, supposedly written to protect individuals, perversely protects rogue physicians by ensuring that bereaved parents never learn that their child’s death was one of many. If the doctor that killed their child killed many others, there is no way for them to discover this. Consequently, parents are denied the power of data. They are forced to argue the merits of each individual case, and individual cases are always treated as exceptions.
We have no hope of succeeding because of the way the system is set up. Objective truth never intrudes on this process. This panel of people who never met the young person will decide that he or she was a hopeless addict, or a hopeless psychotic, or self-destructive, or whatever best fits their story. There is always an element of truth, but the one truth that never comes out is that the addiction was created by the doctor, or that the mental illness was clearly caused or exacerbated by drugs.
After the loss of a child many couples break up. The memories are too painful and the devastated parent is too hurt themselves to help another, equally damaged person. Parents who learn that their child’s death was caused by drugs start by assuming that their case is a dreadful aberration, and that once the authorities find out they too will be outraged. We file lawsuits and demand inquests. We complain to physician regulatory bodies and start websites. Little by little we learn that the system does not want to hear from us. The system actively chooses to ensure that we are not heard.
And so we the parents of children destroyed by drugs are doomed to continue with the most important event in our lives unacknowledged and our faith in due process and fairness destroyed. We have learned the individual action is meaningless so we search for ways to find others like us. We are driven by the need to have the horror of what happened to our children acknowledged. Call it justice, call it mercy, we want something the system seeks to prevent us from getting.